Marvel Conquered Movies. Can It Do the Same With Audiobooks?

Over the past decade, few institutions in the pop culture universe have dominated the conversation as much as Marvel. It wrapped things up in 2019 with Avengers: Endgame, which became the highest-grossing movie of all time. Meanwhile, its publishing arm has spent the past 10 years releasing a raft of new, exciting comic book titles. No surprise, then, that the self-proclaimed House of Ideas is planning to expand its reach going into 2020. What might surprise you, though, is how Marvel is planning to do it.

Late last week, the company launched a new co-production with the serialized audiobook/ebook publisher Serial Box. Titled Thor: Metal Gods, it’s a fresh story about the God of Thunder, and a move into a whole new medium for Marvel’s superheroes. “We’re focused on more of an audiobook experience, where it’s typically a single person telling you a story rather than actors reading from a script,” explains Molly Barton, Serial Box’s cofounder and CEO. “That’s one of the oldest forms of audio entertainment: one person telling a group of people a story.”

Metal Gods is far more than a simple storytelling experience, however; across 15 weekly episodes, written by a group of writers led by Aaron Stewart-Ahn, the series tells an ambitious tale of Thor and Loki attempting to prevent a cosmic apocalypse with the help of a Korean demi-goddess and a gender-ambiguous space pirate. (Actor Daniel Gillies is the narrator of the series.) It’s the first of four such audio serials being created as part of the partnership between the two companies.

This isn’t the first foray into audio for Marvel—the company partnered with podcast platform Stitcher to create a Wolverine podcast in 2018, and has licensed radio adaptations of its characters going all the way back to 1967’s Doctor Strange series on New York’s WBAI—but it is a sign that audio is playing an increasingly important role in the company’s plans for 2020 and beyond; just two months ago, Marvel and SiriusXM announced a multiyear partnership that will include a number of scripted and nonfiction projects.

According to Barton, Marvel is well aware of the potential that serialized audio presents for growing its audience even further. “In one of our earliest conversations with Marvel, they said, ‘We understand that serial storytelling is really fundamental to our way of [delivering] entertainment content,’ and they’re really excited about audio,” she says.

Whether or not fans will be excited about it, though, remains to be seen. Marvel has proven quite skilled at getting people who don’t read comics to see movies based on them, but getting folks to listen to superhero audio stories might prove a more difficult task. But Stewart-Ahn says that, narratively, the medium allows fans to do something they don’t have a chance to do at the multiplex: imagine the scene for themselves.

“There are visual things I believe you can do in comics that you can’t even replicate in movies, and vice versa,” he says. “But I do believe all mediums lend themselves to something unique. No matter how hyper-detailed an illustration is, or a prose description, you still need the person on the other end, the audience, to complete the illusion.”

To create that illusion, however, Marvel and Serial Box rely on a collaboration not that different from filmmaking. In the beginning, Marvel offers input on an initial treatment and subsequent pilot, with editors from the company offering guidance on the story and characters before a writers’ room chosen by Serial Box moves forward with the series itself. As part of the arrangement, Serial Box got to choose what Marvel properties it wanted to use, which Barton says meant they got to pick the characters with strong fandoms, but also ones “where there was room to explore and also to expand the story world.” (Beyond Thor, the companies will roll out series for Black Widow, Black Panther, and Jessica Jones throughout 2020.)

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